Setback for Philadelphia Schools Plan

J. Roberto Gutierrez Sr. and Olga Gonzalez, both from Edison, listen to parents Wilma Cartagena, left, and Teresa Del Valle.
J. Roberto Gutierrez Sr. and Olga Gonzalez, both from Edison, listen to parents Wilma Cartagena, left, and Teresa Del Valle. (Photo: Clem Murray/Philadelphia Inquirer)
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By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2008

Six years ago, the Philadelphia School District embarked on what was considered the country's boldest education privatization experiment, putting 38 schools under private management to see if the free market could educate children more efficiently than the government.

If it worked, the plan seemed likely to become a model for other struggling urban school districts, such as Washington's, suffering from a lack of funding, decaying buildings and abysmal student test scores.

This month, the experiment suffered a severe setback, as the state commission overseeing Philadelphia's schools voted to take back control of six of the privatized schools, while warning 20 others that they had a year to show progress or they, too, would revert to district control.

Students at Philadelphia's schools have made improvements overall, the commission said. But the private-run schools are not doing any better than the schools remaining under public control.

Longtime opponents of the privatization plan immediately said the decision showed that the experiment of turning schools over to private managers and market forces -- an idea popular with pro-school-choice Republicans and pushed at the time President Bush was taking office in Washington -- had run its course.

"The lesson around Philadelphia's privatization experiment shows what we already knew -- that there is not a silver bullet to the problems of large, urban public school systems," said Helen Gym, a founding member of the group Parents United for Public Education. "It has not been the innovative, spectacular system as it was sold to the citizens of this city.

"They had an unprecedented opportunity to turn things around in Philadelphia . . . and they failed miserably overall," added Gym, a former public school teacher. "If you're really trying to turn around public schools in your city and do it right, you should not even spend a minute looking at privatization."

Of the six schools being de-privatized, four are run by the New York-based for-profit school management firm Edison Schools, which operates in 19 states and the District, as well as in London. Edison was founded in 1992 by a group of educators, scholars and business executives, including former Yale University president Benno C. Schmidt.

Edison also has management contracts for 12 other Philadelphia schools that have been effectively put on a one-year probation to show significant improvement.

Edison was given a total of 20 schools to manage in Philadelphia. Four of them are considered to be making enough gains to continue the contracts without probation.

Company officials said they were disappointed with the decision, and they dispute that the schools they manage have failed to show progress. Todd McIntire, Edison's general manager overseeing the Philadelphia schools, said some studies that the firm provided showed progress at the Edison-managed schools.

The disagreement is over how the studies were prepared, how the comparisons were made and precisely what was being measured.


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